In the 1930s Charlie Chaplin referred to Peter Lorre as ‘the greatest living actor’ (p. 60). Fifty years later, Vincent Price claimed that Lorre was ‘not in any way a bad actor; it’s just that Hollywood’s creation of him wouldn’t allow him any more chances to be good than they have allowed many another’ (p. 1). Peter Lorre’s career has typically been seen as a trajectory from the early greatness that Chaplin praised—his important work with Bertolt Brecht, his magnificent performance in M (Fritz Lang, 1931)—to narrow typecasting and self-parody at the end of his career. In such narratives Lorre stars as a tragic artistic figure whose promising career was cut short when he was forced into exile by the Nazis and subjected to the limitations of the Hollywood production system. This is not the narrative that Sarah Thomas pursues in her important new study of Lorre’s career, Peter Lorre: Face Maker.
Thomas argues, on the contrary, against a limiting approach that views Lorre’s Hollywood career as wasted by his being continually typecast as a sort-of B-movie version of his breakthrough role as Hans Beckert in M. Thomas prefers to see Lorre as an illustration of the ‘complexities of screen performance and classical Hollywood employment practices’ (p. 181): the relationship between the film industry and its actors, the relationship between divergent media, and above all the relationship between Lorre’s on-screen roles and what she calls his ‘extra-filmic persona’ (p. 6). It is a rewarding approach that combines careful archival research with clever film analysis to illuminate Lorre’s career from a new angle that not only impacts our understanding of this actor, but also presents an important new way to understand the complex exchanges between on-screen and off-screen performances more generally.
Thomas begins her argument with some simple mathematics. We all know that Peter Lorre was invariably typecast as the gruesome, psychotic, and abnormal murderer and forced to reprise that role throughout his career, right? Weren’t his performances so consistent that he could be easily recognized over 30 years after his death as the person being caricatured as the ghoulish animated character of Maggot in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (1995)? Not exactly. In fact, not even close. Of the 79 films that Lorre made between 1929 and 1964, he portrayed a psychotic murderer in only six of them: M, Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935), Stranger on the Third Floor (Boris Ingster, 1940), The Beast with Five Fingers (Robert Florey, 1946), Double Confession (Ken Annakin, 1950), and Der Verlorene (The Lost One, Peter Lorre, 1951). And, since this short list includes both M and Lorre’s own German directorial effort, Der Verlorene, that means that there were only four Hollywood films in which Lorre found himself typecast as a psychotic murderer. If you expand the boundaries a bit to include all of Lorre’s performances as a character in horror films, you can add six more films to the list: You’ll Find Out (David Butler, 1940), The Boogie Man Will Get You (Lew Landers, 1942), Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra, 1944), Tales of Terror (Roger Corman, 1962), The Raven (Roger Corman, 1963), and The Comedy of Terrors (Jacques Tourneur, 1964). That is still just 15% of his total cinematic output and leaves 67 films unaccounted for in the ‘limited-by-typecasting’ narrative (p. 5-6).
But despite the diversity of his screen roles Peter Lorre is immediately associated with the image of the murderous ghoul and Thomas does not argue against this association. The question is this: if he did not play his recognizable type in the great bulk of his on-screen roles, how then are we to account for the pervasive identification of Lorre with the figure of the psychotic murderer? Thomas suggests that we replace the concept of a ‘screen persona’ with the concept of an ‘extra-filmic persona’ (p. 6). This latter concept emphasizes the way in which Hollywood’s labour practices work to craft an actor’s image off-screen and in other media. Scholars have long recognized the way in which Lorre’s career operates within transnational contexts, arguing that Lorre’s image as strange and threatening is closely tied to his status as an émigré actor, which prompted him to be cast as an outsider, an Other, and a threatening presence (2). Thomas is more concerned with the way in which Lorre’s career operates within transmedial contexts, arguing that Lorre’s image is shaped largely by extra-filmic means and that this image in turn impacts the way in which his on-screen work has been viewed.
Although this is not a biographical study, Thomas’ book does proceed in a basically chronological manner, beginning with Lorre’s work on the European stage in the 1920s and early 1930s, following his move to Hollywood and roles as a leading actor in the 1930s, proceeding to a study of his work as a supporting actor at Warner Bros. in the 1940s, his not-so-triumphant return to Europe to direct and star in Der Verlorene after WWII and finally his late screen roles in the 1950s and 1960s. The book ends with a consideration of other media contexts in which Lorre appeared, including radio, television, and other entertainment outlets.
Chapter One, ‘Lorre and the European Stage (1922-1931),’ concentrates on Lorre’s early theatrical work in Vienna and Berlin. Although Lorre’s relationship with Brecht and his innovative performance in Mann ist Mann (Man Equals Man) is well known, Thomas draws out the interesting angle of the different ‘masks’ that Brecht and Lorre used to symbolize the four distinct episodes of his character’s development. This notion of masks and their relationship to stages of development would follow Lorre throughout his career, most notably in his portrayal of Janos Szabo in The Face Behind the Mask (Robert Florey, 1941) and in Lorre’s description of his own acting style as merely ‘face-making’ (p. 117). But it was really Lorre’s less well-known work with a different theatrical figure that probably had the greatest impact on his career. In the early 1920s, Lorre worked with Jacob Levi Moreno at Vienna’s Stegreiftheater and studied his experimental psychological approach to drama. In a sense, it was this time with Moreno that made Peter Lorre into ‘Peter Lorre:’ not only did he change his name from Lázló Loewenstein to Peter Lorre at Moreno’s suggestion (p. 17), but he also learned to acknowledge himself at all times as both a ‘performer’ and a ‘character’ and developed the self-reflexive mode of performance that he would practice throughout his career (p. 20). Thomas shows how Lorre continued to draw upon his early stage training decades later on screen in The Beast with Five Fingers (p. 27-31). But in an even more fundamental sense the self-reflexive relationship between character and performer that Lorre studied under Moreno would underpin what Thomas sees as the complex relationship between the extra-filmic image of Peter Lorre (the performer) and the on-screen image of Peter Lorre (the characters he played).
Chapter Two, ‘M, Fritz Lang and Hans Beckert (1931),’ acknowledges that ‘[w]hen studying the career of Peter Lorre, particular prominence must be given to Lorre’s first major screen role’ as the serial killer at the centre of Lang’s film (p. 33), but is ultimately more interested in arguing against the centrality of this film in constructing the image of Peter Lorre. Thomas argues that Lorre employs an atypical naturalistic performance technique throughout this film in contrast to the more obviously self-reflexive performances that are more characteristic of his style (p. 48): ‘Lorre’s persona may have its origins in M, but its creation was not necessarily a direct progression from that film’ (p. 50). That persona would instead come years later and on the other side of the Atlantic. The two following chapters (‘The Hollywood Leading Roles (1935-1941)’ and ‘The Supporting Actor (1941-1946)’) detail the establishment of Lorre’s persona not in the dozens of films in which he appeared in these years, but rather as a means to counteract the diversity of his performances. ‘There is little sense of homogeneity within the terms of Lorre’s employment,’ as Thomas demonstrates quite well in her careful analyses of these films, ‘either in the roles he was given, the performance styles he used, or even the position he held within the industry at specific studios’ (p. 79). Yet the Hollywood film industry had to ‘sell’ its actors as ‘known commodities’ (p. 79). It was precisely in service of this that ‘the promotional discourses that were used to market Lorre can be seen as a means of establishing a sense of continuity to the otherwise divergent career of a leading (and sometimes supporting) actor’ (p. 79). This is the crucial turn at the center of Thomas’ narrative of how ‘Peter Lorre’ became the strange and ghoulish murderous figure that has dominated perceptions of him from the mid-1930s to the present: it was not a direct result of M or any of his other on-screen roles, but rather a reaction against the heterogeneity of his roles and performance styles in order to establish continuity for the person (or more accurately: extra-filmic persona) behind those roles. An extra-filmic persona had to be developed that could be sold in lieu of a consistent on-screen persona that did not exist.
Thomas’ cleaver reading of Peter Lorre’s sole directorial effort, Der Verlorene, acknowledges the unmistakable autobiographical elements of the film, but demonstrates how it is ‘consistently split into different elements:’ references to his work on screen, his various styles of performance, his public image, and his return to Germany as a witness to the dramatic changes that the country had gone through in the decades since he left (p. 135). Der Verlorene was famously poorly received, leading Lorre to return to Hollywood. The traditional narrative understands the last decade of Lorre’s career as one of decline and self-parody. By this point in the book, it is not surprising that Thomas seeks to push back against this narrative. Although Thomas doesn’t attempt to reevaluate films such as the smell-o-vision classic The Scent of Mystery (Jack Cardiff, 1960) as neglected masterpieces, she does see a fascinating turn in Lorre’s career in his final films that transforms him into something that he had never previously been: an insider. His appearances in family-friendly blockbusters such as 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Richard Fleischer, 1954); as a small-town Sheriff in The Boogie Man will Get You, complete with a house with a white-picket fence; and especially his roles in the cult horror films made by American International Pictures turned Lorre improbably into an American, a family-friendly entertainer, and a cult star. This is a far cry from the traditional narrative of decline and self-parody.
In the final chapter Thomas looks at ‘Alternative ‘Hollywood’ Media Contexts,’ which encompasses Lorre’s extensive appearances on television, radio, and in publicity and promotional material. This is the Peter Lorre who appeared in animated form on The Flintstones, The Simpsons, and several Bugs Bunny cartoons. This is the Peter Lorre who introduced Mystery Playhouse on Armed Forces Network radio with the words: ‘Hello creeps!’ This is the Peter Lorre who guest-starred on episodes of The Abbott and Costello Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, What’s My Line and dozens of other television shows. This is, in short, the extra-filmic Peter Lorre who is at the center of Thomas’ entire study. Precisely because these alternative media contexts are so fascinating, so rich, and so obviously central to Thomas’ narrative, it is disappointing that they receive only one short chapter at the end of the book. Thomas is well aware that she gives these texts less attention than they might command and explains that she sidelined them in order to concentrate on Lorre’s cinematic work (p. 184). I understand this decision and the resulting study makes a convincing case for this concentration. I nevertheless would love to read at greater length about the Peter Lorre that I first got to know as a kid in the Looney Tunes classic ‘Hair-Raising Hare’ (Chuck Jones, 1946) and his appearance alongside Boris Karloff and Lon Caney Jr. on Route 66, where Lorre sans costume proves more frightening than these famous movie monsters in costume. Perhaps Sarah Thomas would be willing to work on a sequel to Peter Lorre: Face Maker. I’d pre-order a copy.
Sarah Thomas, Peter Lorre: Face Maker. Constructing Stardom and Performance in Hollywood and Europe. New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2012. 213 pp.
- Exchange between Arlene Francis and Peter Lorre when Francis correctly guesses the identity of the mystery guest on the February 14, 1960 broadcast of What’s My Line. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cermSSPX_Hk.
- See, for example, Alastair Phillips and Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Film Trade, Global Culture and Transnational Cinema: An Introduction,’ in Journeys of Desire: European Actors in Hollywood, A Critical Companion, Ed. A . Philips and G. Vincendeau (London, BFI, 2006), 3-20 and Gerd Gemünden, ‘From ‘Mr M’ to ‘Mr Murderer’: Peter Lorre and the Actor in Exile’, in Light Motives, Ed. Randall Halle and Margaret McCarthy (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2003), 85-107.